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Brazil and the Jeitinho: A Cultural Lesson in Bahia


Brazil and the Jeitinho: A Cultural Lesson in Bahia

I couldn’t help to think about that word
jeito. What sort of magical
thing was that, I wondered.
Through my travels I’ve learned to
hold onto and explore these points because they provide powerful

lessons. I soon learned that the jeito, or
jeitinho, is by no
means considered a positive thing by all Brazilians.

by:
Guido
Groeschel

 

Relieved and perplexed.

I was feeling both as I waited for a bus after leaving the offices of the Ministry of Finance (Ministério da Fazenda)
in the city of Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia located in northeastern Brazil.

My sense of relief was due to the fact that I had just been issued a tax registration number, known in Brazil as a
Cadastro de Pessoa Física or CPF. Roughly speaking, a CPF is to Brazil what a Social Security Number is to the United States.
With a CPF I would now be able to get on with my life as a foreign resident in Brazil. I would be able to get my Work Permit
(Carteira de Trabalho), open a checking account, and sign a lease to rent an apartment.

But I was perplexed because I didn’t understand why I had been issued a CPF after the experience I had lived
through trying to obtain one.

It all started when I made my way to the Ministry of Finance. The offices were located in a faded building that had
long since seen its glory days in the heart of the financial district located in the Cidade Baixa in Salvador.

As I passed through the large threshold, I left the bright sunny afternoon behind me and entered the dim light of the
building. After deciphering the signs on the wall I found the appropriate cue and took my place. An hour later I was at the front of
the line and was called to the counter by a young bright-eyed bureaucrat who listened to my request. "I need a CPF in order
to get my work permit. Here is my Identity Card. Here is my passport. And here is my visa."

A look of concern spread over his face. "I don’t think you can have a CPF."

"But I need one in order to get my Work Permit. So I can start working," I responded.

"One moment." He disappeared through a doorway behind the counter.

When he returned he confirmed his initial statement. "Foreigners are not issued CPFs," he reported matter-of-factly
with a shrug of his shoulders.

"But I have a work visa," I said.

"Sir, you cannot get a CPF," he stated categorically.

I left the Ministry of Finance building wondering how I would work my way out of the Catch-22 that was unfolding
in front of me.

I was less than heartened by my employer’s response to the incident. My employer maintained that I had to have a
CPF in order to get my Work Permit. This meant that I must return to the Ministry of Finance to get a CPF. I was beginning
to develop an image of the CPF as my pathetic holy grail in the absurd vignette in which I now found myself immersed.

But try again is what I did. The next morning I made the trek back to the Ministry of Finance building. This time I
arrived before the doors opened.

The same routine ensued. The same young bright-eyed bureaucrat greeted me, only this time with a look of
reservation in his eyes.

I explained to him that my employer had informed me that I needed to obtain a CPF in order to get a Work Permit.

He repeated the same line from the day before accompanied again with a shrug of his shoulders, "Foreigners are not
issued CPFs".

I stood my ground and remained calm as if to say I was resigned to remaining at the counter until hell froze over or
until I had a CPF. I then dropped my shoulders and in a conciliatory tone told the young bureaucrat, "Look, I’ve got to have a
CPF. One way or the other, I have got to have one. You have got to understand my situation. I have to have a CPF."

The man shook his head in acknowledgement and as he had the day before he disappeared through the same
doorway behind the counter. He was gone for at least 10 minutes.

When he returned, his face was relaxed and he looked relieved as he announced to me,
"Dei um jeito. You are going to be issued a CPF."

And sure enough, within 15 minutes I had an unimpressive piece of paper with a faintly printed 11-digit number on
it. I had found my holy grail and was on my way to getting settled in Brazil.

But I couldn’t help to think about that word
jeito. What sort of magical thing was that, I wondered. Given my status
as a cultural outsider in Brazil, I sensed that I was on the cusp of what ethnographer Michael Agar calls a "rich point," one
of those pieces of culture that highlights the difference between one’s native culture and another culture. Through my
travels I’ve learned to hold onto and explore these rich points because they provide powerful lessons in helping to understand
another culture.

That is what I did with this thing called
jeito. A Dictionary of Informal Portuguese by Bobby J. Chamberlain and
Ronald M. Harmon told me that "dar um
jeito" or "dar um jeitinho" means "to find a way, fix it, pull strings, figure out a
solution." That was a start. But I doubted that was all there was to it.

Then I came across this commentary from Roberto da Matta in his
O que faz o Brasil, Brasil? (What Makes Brazil
Brazil) as translated in Joseph Page’s The
Brazilians: "I know that there never exists a `no’ in the face of formal barriers, and
that there is no such barrier that does not admit of a
jeitinho through the mechanism of personal relationships or friendship."
This certainly seemed to apply to my experience. While the bureaucrat I dealt with in the Ministry of Finance was not my
friend, over the course of our two encounters I tend to think that we developed a relationship as demonstrated by the signs of
empathy he showed for me in my struggle with the absurdities of a bureaucracy.

However, I soon learned that the jeito, or
jeitinho, is by no means considered a positive thing by all Brazilians. This
was further evidence that I had hit on a true rich point because, as Michael Agar asserts, even the natives were not in
agreement about their interpretation of its essence.

Take, for example, Lourenço Stelio Rega’s explication of the
jeito. In his Dando um jeito no jeitinho
(Fixing Institutionalized Graft) he portrays in meticulous detail what he considers to be the vicious circle of the
jeito and its pernicious effects on Brazilian society.

Rega asserts that the culture of the
jeito is nefarious, having arisen in Brazil due to a generalized historical lack of
governmental attention to the needs of the citizenry. He holds that the underachievement of the state has led the populous to
feel at liberty to violate the letter of the law. According to Rega, transgression turns into more heinous corruption as guilty
citizens are caught and resort to bribery to escape punishment.

Finally, Rega maintains that the circle is closed by impunity. He cites such notorious examples as the
jogo do bicho, an illegal gambling racket that has thumbed its nose at the law for over 100 years. In Rio de Janeiro alone, the
jogo do bicho generates an estimated US$ 10 million in sales annually, employs some 50,000 people, plays an active public role in
financing samba schools, and maintains closes ties with other forms of organized crime.

My experience in Brazil has led me to see the Brazilian
jeito as a question not of either-or but rather of both-and.
The personal story I related in this article is but one of many experiences that I have had that demonstrate how the Brazilian
jeito can serve to break down the inhumanity of an absurd bureaucracy. At the same time, one need look no farther than the
front page of any Brazilian daily newspaper to see how the institutionalized culture of the
jeito can also serve to rationalize and perpetuate a pernicious cycle that defaces the very symbol of national progress emblazoned on the Brazilian flag.

 

Guido Groeschel first visited Brazil in 1990 and has lived in Bahia for 2 years. He leads guided tours of Bahia with
Brazil Beleza—www.brazilbeleza.com—an owner-operated tour company specializing in intimate guided tours for
discerning travelers who want more out of a trip to Brazil. You can reach him at
guido@brazilbeleza.com


© Guido Groeschel 2003

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